Friday, June 5, 2009

From Blistering Expenses to Green Green Green

Friday June 5th

It was a rough and turbulent descent into the lush forests of Kuala Lumpur (KL) where my friend Nour and I stumbled through KLIA’s immigresen and were picked up by my second cousin Winnie and my sister Amani. We somehow managed to squeeze our two large luggage’s, a carry-on, and ourselves into Winnie’s small 4.5 seater perdua by propping the largest luggage in the front passenger seat on the left next to Winnie, and we were on our way. It was only when we got on the British left-side of the road cruising on the highway with our heads grazing the low ceiling of the car with every bump did it hit us that we were finally here: Truly Asia. We grinned foolishly at each other as other little Malaysian-made cars zipped around us towards a long row of tollgates; you got your choices here (unlike Dubai’s monopolizing Salik that rips everyone off 4Dhs indiscriminately). You got the automated drive-thru SmartTag, the card-scanning Touch N Go, or the manual pay window (our choice). Of course, no tollgate than any tollgates would have been the ultimate choice, but it’s nice that we’re given a chance to choose. We hit a roadside food stop and Nour filmed her first meal back to Malaysia since her one-week tourist spree four years ago (she had Nasi Lemak, a meal of rice cooked in coconut milk with sweet chili sauce, fried anchovies, roasted peanuts and a hardboiled egg). We drank in the green surrounding scenery; a welcomed change from the sepia desert we left behind, but it wasn’t long before the heavy humidity weighed down on our shoulders. Perhaps Malaysia is several degrees cooler than the Emirates, but it was a whole lot muggier. We went from an environment of dehydration to one of drowning in one flight, and we couldn’t decide which was worse. At least we don’t have to worry about moisturizing lotion here.

After dumping our bags at the apartment and going through the shower, we went back out for dinner and to shop for the few things we were sure we packed but didn’t (a common traveling phenomena), and came back to the apartment for another round of showers. It’s normal to shower thrice a day in Malaysia, and it looked like we would be until we got a little acclimated and can afford to bring it down to two showers a day.
At dinner, we amused ourselves by teaching Nour the first ten numbers in Malay. Amani, the mnemonics queen, came up with the French “la pain” (bread) for the eight “lapan” in Malay, and 'some-bee-line’ for nine’s “sembilan.” With decreasing trepidation Nour counted up to ten and back, impressing us with her memory but possibly puzzling the other customers in the restaurant who could only here the occasional “one!” “five!” and “seven!” exclamations from our table.

The bill for our two appetizers, four meals and four drinks came to Rm35, reminding us of the most inescapable difference between Dubai and Malaysia: the cost of living. When an average meal would cost someone Dhs35 in Dubai (without drinks), that amount can serve a small but hungry group of people in KL. Four years ago it used to be Dhs0.96 to every Rm1, but with the recession the tables have turned, and it’s Dhs1.17 to every Rm1 now, and it goes so much further in Malaysia. Though I am on a set budget, the prices we’d encounter would spark a curious sense of generosity in me that isn’t usually there in Dubai, and I’d want to sweep away the bill from under reaching fingers and drop an easy 10 or 20 for everyone. With the currencies being so close to each other (give or take 5-15 cents/sens/fils) one can’t help feel hugely ripped off by the Dubai lifestyle when a Dhs100 couldn’t get you through a night but Rm100 can be lived on for a week in KL. My reactions were mixed between jubilancy at paying so little here and outrage at having been forced to pay so much at home. Going back to Dubai in August will be another bout of financial culture shock where I won’t be willing to give up any extra dirham I don’t feel compelled to pay. I’d haggle at Carrefour if I have to, you watch me.

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